The recent genocidal Khmer Rouge era resulted in the deaths of millions of Cambodians in the 1970s, while displacing many who ended up in refugee camps in Thailand. The democratic elections in 1993 heralded a period of calm after decades of conflict and many of the displaced returned home only to find their land contaminated by mines that Pol Pot described as his "perfect soldiers" for their effectiveness in causing fear and death. With an estimate of 4-6 million landmines and unexploded ordnances still buried throughout the countryside, this toxic pollution continues to savagely exact a human, social and economic cost resulting in Cambodia having with one amputee per 290 people, one of the highest ratios in the world.
With over 90% of the Cambodian population being Buddhist, one would think that the belief in their responsibility to care and support those in need would greatly benefit the disabled. However, this is tempered by their belief in reincarnation and a disability is viewed as a result of a personal failing, in this life or a past one. Thus, the disabled are instead regarded with fear, mistrust and discrimination in a society where the stigma is rarely challenged.
In a society where status is largely determined by your ability to contribute to the family by working and/or earning money, it is no surprise that the disabled are marginalized socially and economically, forcing them to live in the shadows facing a life of low status and poverty. Male adults are particularly vulnerable as their value in society is erased by an amputation. Wives may leave them, they may turn to begging, while some become angry, depressed and/or reclusive.
Can you imagine a life where, treated as an outcast, the simple act of trying to earn a living by selling goods in a market can result in being spit on, driven out or harassed by the police and having your goods confiscated? Looking to your family as your only means of support only to have them deny you access into the home as they believe you bring in bad luck? A dream of an education is dashed as you are immobile and cannot get to school, or if you are in a wheelchair, there is no ramp to access your classroom and no disabled-accessible bathroom?
The hardships for people with disabilities is exacerbated by the fact that Cambodia has a very under-developed infrastructure with a healthcare system ill equipped to provide the basic services of therapy and treatment. NGOs have stepped in where government programs fall short but most are based in Phnom Penh and a few provincial capitals, largely limiting access for the majority of the population that live in the rural areas.
I am happy to say that Veterans International is the exception to the rule. Collaborating with three other NGOs specializing in supporting the disabled, these four organizations have taken responsibility for different provinces in Cambodia ensuring coverage to a wide sector of the disabled population. Providing access to health, education and employment opportunities through the delivery of their community-based programs, Veterans International not only offers prosthetics, mobility devices and physiotherapy free of charge, but conduct disability awareness campaigns to promote community understanding of the disabled, integrate vulnerable children into mainstream schools, and facilitate the formation of self-help groups empowering people with disabilities to advocate for themselves. Realizing that economic autonomy is a key element of rehabilitation in Cambodia, Veterans International also offers vocational training, provides grants and direct assistance so that the disabled may start their own income-generating businesses to improve their standard of living.
It is not enough to enable someone to walk again. Veterans International's work ensures the highest impact for the communities they work with while helping to reduce poverty and empowering the most vulnerable. They understand that by offering a holistic approach to improving livelihoods, they restore pride and a feeling of well-being that comes from being an equal contributing member of the community.
Around the world, most attitudes toward people with physical and intellectual disabilities are framed by negative stereotypes, borne of fear, ignorance and misconceptions. It is up to all of us to take a stand and raise awareness of the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of exclusionary words and actions, and reverse the stigma that is destructive to the lives of people with disabilities and a barrier to growth. We need a massive attitude change to attack the demeaning of any of our fellow human beings as not only do the actions and words negatively impact all of us but prevent all of our efforts to gain respect and acceptance of people of all backgrounds, cultures, races and ages. We must work together peaceably to celebrate what we have in common and to focus on those in need, even when they represent nations or areas that have been divided or are different in areas where values are uncommon. This power to connect and promote acceptance of difference – whether ethnic, religious, tribal, physical or intellectual – is a precondition for security and peace, from Portland to Phnom Penh, Cairo to Calgary.
As I work alongside VI director Josefina McAndrew and her small dedicated team, and seeing the smiles on the faces of their beneficiaries when they take that first step towards a bright future, I sense we are making headway but we have a long way to go. It starts with us to open a window of understanding, widen perspectives and build a safer, more accepting world for everyone.
"When I became a landmine survivor and a double amputee, I was so depressed. I thought that I could never work anymore, that my life was over. The wheelchair I received from Veterans International changed my life and I was able to move around. I feel more secure and confident and am now able to support my family. Thank you VI for helping me."
Rin Rumany (49), Husband and father of 7
(Photos courtesy of Veterans International)